COVID-19, Climate Change and Young People’s Futures: Views from Europe

Like their Australian counterparts, young people in Europe entering the world of work faced a job market characterized by underemployment, casualization, and wage stagnation even before COVID-19 wreaked havoc on the global economy. But, while Australian politicians prevaricate on the future of jobs and training, EU policy aims to meet demands for intergenerational justice by intertwining it with climate justice.

The EU’s much-touted European Green Deal (EGD), announced in December 2019, has not merely survived COVID-19 but is being set up at the centrepiece of Europe’s economic recovery. The EGD is a €1 trillion framework targeting a climate neutral continent by 2050. Through the EGD, the European Commission (EC) plans the ‘unleashing’ of private investment in renewable technologies; the institution of a European Climate Law that would legally mandate the goal of climate neutrality; and a Just Transition Mechanism, providing support funding to heavily-affect, fossil-dependent economies.

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Young people are central to this mission, and to the Commission’s stated goal that it will ‘leave no-one behind’. The EU’s official communication on the EGD promises 1) the development of a competence framework for teaching on environment and sustainability in schools, 2) financial resources, to improve sustainability in the built environments and operations of schools, including a targeted €3 billion in investment and 3) using the European Social Fund (ESF) and an updated Skills Agenda and Youth Guarantee to ensure young people are equipped for the transition from declining industry, into the green economy.

The ESF, one of Europe’s foundational instruments created in the Treaty of Rome in 1957, supports employment in EU Member States through funding partnerships between the EC and national and regional authorities in Europe. These have long focused on young people by supporting training for skills and qualifications, transitions into work, work placements and mobility schemes. Under the proposed European budget for 2021-2027, the ‘ESF Plus’ will require member states with serious youth unemployment and training participation problems to dedicate 10 per cent of their funds to address these challenges.

This is a persistent and growing issue in the European Union. A growing number of young people are being left behind, with 16.5 per cent of European citizens aged between 20-34 years falling into the category ‘NEETs’ – ‘Not in Employment, Education or Training’. NEETs have a much higher risk of poverty and social exclusion, while young people with a low-level education are four times more in danger of becoming NEETs than those with higher education.

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The evidence of past recessions suggests a gloomy picture for young people as the world emerges from the COVID-19 crisis. Data from the years after the Global Financial Crisis shows that it took many years for those aged 15-24 in Australia to return to pre-2008 employment levels. In Europe, the unevenness of youth unemployment between member states in a decade of austerity – approaching 40 per cent in Italy, Spain, and Greece – has fed political resentments, both within national politics and directed against the EU itself.

The gravity of these problems leads some critics to argue the EGD does not go far enough. Critics of the EGD argue that its transformative promises are illusory, because ambitious climate targets are not matched by plans for fundamental economic and social transformation. Speaking to the European Parliament in March 2020 Greta Thunberg, the figurehead of the youth climate movement, called the European Climate Law a “surrender”, that would not, in its proposed form, address carbon emissions fast enough to effect serious change.

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Nonetheless, from an Australian perspective it is hard not to look at the EU’s willingness to link the future of youth and the economy with climate crisis, and lament our own political leaders’ dismissal of leaders like Thunberg as generating ‘needless anxiety’.

Authors: Chloe Ward and Bradley Davison, EU Centre of Excellence, RMIT University

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